Friday, 16 September 2011

Martin McGuinness, Irish President?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Martin McGuinness to run for President

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness is to run for the office of President of Ireland, his party confirmed tonight.

The former IRA leader and current deputy first minister in the North will be formally endorsed by his party leadership over the weekend.

The announcement is already being billed as the republican movement’s most audacious act since IRA prisoner Bobby Sands stood as an MP.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams confirmed that the party's Ard Chomhairle is to meet on Sunday morning to discuss a proposal from the National Officer Board to nominate a candidate to stand in the presidential election.

He said: “The officer board will recommend that the candidate will be Martin McGuinness. Sinn Féin believes that the office of Uachtaran na hEireann has been made more relevant by Mary Robinson and by President Mary McAleese.

“This is a time of great challenge for all the people of Ireland. We need positive but authentic leadership.

“It will be a great honour for me to propose Martin McGuinness to contest this election on a broad, republican, citizen-centred platform.”

Mr Adams said: "I believe that this election will give Martin the platform to continue the work which he has led in the North and in the peace process and to put it on a national footing. I believe he can be the people’s president. If elected he will draw the average industrial wage.

“He will dedicate himself to a genuine national reconciliation and the unity of our people. He will personify hope in the great genius and integrity of all the people of this island – Catholics, Protestants and dissenters.”

The Sinn Féin leader went on: “I would appeal, if Martin contests this election, for people to join in this campaign, including people in the North and across the diaspora who are denied a vote at this time.

“The campaign will give citizens the opportunity to make a stand for a better Ireland, for a united Ireland.”

Martin McGuinness: From IRA commander to peace-process champion

Martin McGuinness has just completed a top level trade mission in the United States which included talks with Hollywood movie moguls.

But even they would baulk at the storyline the one-time IRA commander now hopes to write for himself by his bid to be elected President of Ireland.

The shock move, however, is just the latest twist in the life of a man who was branded the IRA’s mastermind, but who became a champion of the peace process, and defied all the odds by forming a government – and even a friendship - with his most bitter enemy Ian Paisley.

The republican leader emerged from Derry 40 years ago as a fresh-faced 21-year-old – the IRA’s boy soldier who ran the city’s Bogside.

He was a feared street fighter who for years lived on the run, mostly across the border in Co Donegal. Security chiefs at the time considered him a ruthless terrorist who was at the centre of the IRA’s campaign.

But all that changed once the IRA called a halt to the bombing and shooting, first in 1994 and then three years later when the leadership announced a permanent ceasefire.

Martin McGuinness had been seen as the face of the IRA and the wider republican movement, alongside Gerry Adams.

But as politics replaced conflict, a new McGuinness began to emerge. Former enemies recounted tales of meeting a figure they found to be affable, who loved sport, enjoyed fly-fishing and even wrote poetry.

He was nevertheless seen as Sinn Féin’s toughest negotiator and took the lead role in talks.

Over the last 20 years of Ireland’s slowly developing peace process, the 61-year-old has brushed shoulders with successive US presidents and British prime ministers. But at home, he retains the ability to inspire both loyalty and enmity.

Last week Sinn Féin held its annual conference in Belfast for the first time. One of the highlights of the Ard Fheis was a speech by Presbyterian Minister David Latimer, the first Northern Ireland Protestant clergyman to address the republican gathering.

He has struck up a personal friendship with Mr McGuinness and embraced the senior republican at the event, before hailing him as one of the “true great leaders of modern times”. The fulsome praise brought bitter criticism from a number of unionist politicians.

On news of Mr McGuinness’s plan to run for the presidency, the clergyman said: “My first reaction is that this is a loss for Northern Ireland, because he has been involved in the process of turning our community 180 degrees and starting that new journey, if you like, that has taken us towards peace and a better future.

“I have watched Martin McGuinness change, so impressively change, that it would persuade me that he has a life beyond what he is currently engaged in, because he has, I think, changed in ways that prepare him for leadership at the highest level.”

Rev Latimer added: “In running for the President of Ireland, he would have my full support. At a difficult time economically, as well as socially and culturally, I would see him as a man who could send out ripples of hope.”

In recent years, as Mr McGuinness rose in prominence through his role in the North's powersharing government, there have been signs that a growing number of unionists are prepared to accept his bona fides, despite bitter opposition in some quarters.

A 2009 newspaper poll that sampled opinion across the religious divide voted the Derry republican the most respected politician at Stormont, where he shares the lead role with Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson.

Alan McBride, who lobbies for the victims of the Troubles, and whose wife and father-in-law were murdered in the IRA’s Shankill Road bombing in Belfast in 1993, said he had met Martin McGuinness several times.

“I know that when these things come up they can be hurtful for victims,” he said. “But he is someone who has played a key role here in the peace process. I would have no problem with him becoming president – though some of my relatives and friends would feel differently.

“I think he would do very well as president. I think he would be a good ambassador for Ireland.”

He added: “He shares a joint office with Peter Robinson and so is Northern Ireland’s joint First Citizen. What’s good for the north should be good for the south as well.”

Born in 1950, Mr McGuinness is married to wife Bernie, and the couple have four children.

They still live in his native Derry and he leaves his family home at dawn each day to travel to Stormont, often not returning home until midnight. His commitment – and that of Mr Robinson – is recognised as having bolstered the power-sharing experiment and cemented opposition to violence.

When dissident republicans opposed to the peace process murdered two soldiers in Co Antrim and a police officer in Co Armagh in 2009, Mr McGuinness rounded on the killers.

He branded them as “traitors to the people of Ireland” – a rebuke that was later said to have seen dissident republicans issue threats to kill the Sinn Féin figure.

Allied to such episodes was the daily task of forming new relationships with former enemies at Stormont.

When the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin agreed to enter government in 2007, critics said it would never last.

Mr McGuinness and the then DUP leader Ian Paisley stunned observers by forging a strong political relationship, which blossomed into a friendship. The sight of them laughing together in public saw them dubbed "the chuckle brothers".

When the DUP figurehead handed power to his tough deputy Peter Robinson, it was thought the new leader would seek to cool relations with Sinn Féin. But when Mr Robinson’s private life hit the headlines after his wife admitted an affair with a teenager, Mr McGuinness offered his support to the embattled unionist. The pair shook hands for the first time and a new DUP/Sinn Féin partnership was sealed.

Martin McGuinness has been frank about his republican past – though opponents have said he has yet to tell the full story.

During the Saville inquiry into the British army killings on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, Mr McGuinness confirmed his leadership role in the IRA at the time. Since then he has repeatedly declared “the war is over”.

Now, the man who was held in Portlaoise Prison on a sentence of IRA membership in the 1970s is preparing to challenge for the state’s highest political office.

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